REVIEW SUMMARY: A film adaptation of a graphic novel so faithful that it embraces it best and worst elements.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Betrayed by their commander, a group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers seeks payback.
PROS: Good cast, occasionally engaging dialogue, and the concept of environmentally friendly weapons.
CONS: A faithful adaptation to a comic that lacked much originality, derivative of other works, and full of too many action clichés.
Movies and comics share several conventions, but the paramount element of both is visual. Like comics, the appeal of movies is, first and foremost, in the images they present to their audience. This is not to say that any of the other pieces – character, story, ideas – are unimportant, but that what a moviegoer sees is what provides the thrill and joy. No matter how many other similarities they share, however, movies are not comics. The language is different, and in adapting a comic to screen one has to understand the difference for an effective translation. Richard Donner understood this when he directed Superman; Christopher Nolan knew the difference when he directed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Losers, by contrast, suffers the fate of actually being too faithful to the comic, embracing not only its best elements but also its worst.
Sadly, that’s the good news.
The bad news is that The Losers also embraces the worst aspects of the action film since the genre’s heyday during the 1980s, or if not its worst aspects, then its most derivative, using techniques that were groundbreaking when John Woo and Ringo Lam made their Hong Kong bulletfests but, since The Matrix, have wallowed in cliché. That director Sylvain White also does not appear to understand the pacing of the action film, or even the setup and payoff of an action sequence, does not help matters. What makes them worse is the punctuation of genuinely good moments peppered throughout the movie that highlight the bad ones.
It even starts from the derivative place where a number of good movies begin. When a five-member U.S. Special Forces team is sent into Bolivia to mark the target of drug runner Fadhil (Peter Francis James, given far too little screen time) for bombing, they realize that Fadhil is using children as mules, and ask their leader Max (Jason Patric) to abort the operation. When he refuses, leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) leads Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Pooch (Columbus Short) and Cougar (Oscar Jaenada) develop a moral spine that it takes most other movies more than an hour and a half to grow and start a shootout in Fadhil’s villa to rescue the children before the U.S. armed forces drops its bombs. They get the children out and onto a transport helicopter…which a fighter then blows up, killing all aboard. Realizing that Max has betrayed them, they remove their dogtags and throw them into the wreckage, and thus the Losers are born.
As opening sequences (to say nothing of origin stories) go, it’s not all that bad, though the rapport between the team flits from clever to cliché, never exactly finding a balance, a problem also prevalent in the comic. (The banter itself, clever though it can be, is verbal junk food; somewhat tasty at first, but as unmemorable as a quarter pounder with cheese purchased at McDonald’s.) Moreover, during the shootout White jumps from Paul Greengrass-style shakycam to undercranking the camera for slow motion effects, as if unsure exactly how he should be filming the action, or even what kind of movie he’s making. And he overuses the technique; White films every single action sequence (as well as later sex scenes) in precisely this manner, to the point that the set pieces evoke more laughter than thrills.
While stranded in Bolivia, the mysterious Aisha (Zoe Saldana) approaches Clay (in a routine mishmash of eroticism and action) with a proposition: she will help him and his team return to the United States in return for helping her exact revenge on Max. Wanting to even their own score with Max, they agree.
Max, of course, has his own agenda; he wants to purchase a sonic nuclear bomb, or snuke, which causes an incredible amount of damage while minimal harm to the environment. (He refers to it as a “green bomb.”) Why does he want to do this? We’re never sure, and that’s another part of the problem; screenwriters Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt draw Andy Diggle’s characters in general, and Max in particular, so broadly that it becomes impossible for the viewer to care about anybody. (This is a problem with the comic as well.) The cast puts everything they can into creating credible characters but manage little more than affectations, and nonsensical ones at that. Clay spends most of the movie wearing the same rumpled black suit and white shirt, leaving the viewer to wonder if how long he spends trying to get the wrinkles in his jacket just right. Max wears a single glove on his left hand throughout the movie due to an injury. Why? We have no idea, and it appears irrelevant. (Patric also overplays Max as if he is a bad parody of a James Bond villain, with unwatchable results.) Sometimes the affectations pay off, as when Jensen arrives at a meeting with Aisha wearing a pink tee shirt; his niece plays on a little league soccer team, and he wears the shirts in a show of support. Mostly, however, the affectations never elevate the characters to anything more than names.
The movie doesn’t so much end as sputter to a halt, leaving open the possibility of The Losers 2, but by the time the credits roll a long hour and forty minutes later, viewers heading to the exits have already forgotten most of what they’ve seen, but cannot escape the feeling that they’ve been had. It may be The Losers who shot their way across the screen, but it’s the audience that feels like the title characters.